Acid reflux is a common occurrence for many people. However, although it’s true that acid reflux is experienced by virtually everyone, at one time or another, you should never assume that such a common occurrence is not dangerous. When is acid reflux dangerous? Acid reflux can become dangerous if it occurs constantly and develops into frequent episodes.
Frequent heartburn (burning sensation that occurs when acid touches the esophagus lining) is a sign of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD). GERD is a chronic condition that is characterized by constant acid reflux and ongoing heartburn that occurs at least two times in a week. Chronic heartburn that is left untreated can lead to complications that can eventually damage the esophagus. Therefore, the answer to when acid reflux is dangerous is when it occurs frequently and is left untreated.
What type of complications can occur? The lining of the esophagus can begin to erode away if it is exposed to prolonged exposure to stomach acid. This type of damage caused by stomach acid in the esophagus is known as erosive esophagitis. Once this type of damage is present, the esophagus is then at a higher risk of developing more serious conditions such as Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer.
Barrett’s Esophagus – Barrett’s esophagus is usually the condition that follows esophagitis. This serious condition is characterized by abnormal cell changes (dysplasia) within the lining of the esophagus that occurs through an internal metaplasia process. The abnormal cells that replace the once natural cells are thick columnar epithelial cells that are similar to those found within the intestines.
An esophagus infected by Barrett’s esophagus is a deep pink, and the sufferer is at an increased risk of developing esophageal cancer. In fact, it is estimated that every year, as many as 0.5% of those with Barrett’s esophagus will develop esophageal cancer.
Once Barrett’s esophagus is diagnosed through an upper gastrointestinal endoscopy and biopsy, all a sufferer can receive is treatment. Treatment for Barrett’s esophagus, include the removal of the esophagus, which is only really recommended for those who have esophageal cancer and surgery to remove the dysplasia.
Esophageal Cancer – Esophageal cancer occurs when cancer forms within the esophagus. It is extremely difficult to treat esophageal cancer, and it is often deadly. Aside from Barrett’s esophagus, the risk factors for this form of cancer include smoking, alcohol and age (almost half of those diagnosed are 70 years or older). There are two common types of esophageal cancer:
1. Squamous cell carcinoma – located on the upper and middle portion of the esophagus.
2. Adenocarcinoma – located close to the stomach on the lower portion of the esophagus
As was previously mentioned, treatment usually involves the removal of the esophagus.
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Aside from the fact that Barrett’s esophagus and esophageal cancer are the two most common risk factors for complications arising from prolonged acid reflux, keep in mind they are not the only issues that can occur. Other risks individuals can be exposed to include:
* Esophageal strictures – Results when the esophagus slowly becomes narrower, creating swallowing issues and the formation of strictures.
* Laryngeal cancer – cancer of the larynx is more common among those with frequent acid reflux.
If you are concerned and would like to learn more about when is acid reflux dangerous, you should consult your doctor. Discuss the different treatment options available so you can utilize the best practices to manage occasional heartburn and GERD and avoid potential complications.